Surprising Discoveries

-          New Zealand was only discovered 800 years ago, by Polynesians – it is the most recent land to be settled by humans

-          Much of the north island used to be under water millions of years ago, and volcanic activity and shifting of the tectonic plates has elevated the land to above water

-       New Zealand used to have the highest density of sheep at about 60 to each person, though that number has come down to the single digits

-          You CAN’T SUE in New Zealand. I’d love to see a study done on the differences in quality control in countries such as the US that can sue, and New Zealand. If you could prove that the right to sue does not improve overall outcomes, that indicates suing is a net expense to the economy

-          NO CAPITAL GAINS TAX

-          Kiwis (the birds) have relatively very large eggs – the size of egg they lay would be equivalent to a human having a 35-pound baby

-          The nickname for New Zealanders is “Kiwi”, after their national bird; and they are nicknamed after their national bird because of shoe polish (more about this below)

-          Many signs and literature in museums is in Maori

-          The slang for “cool”, “awesome”, and “nice” is “sweet as” – kiwis say “sweet as” after everything

Brief History

New Zealand’s north island is compact with incredible geology and culture. The land was settled by Polynesians around 1250 to 1300. In 1642, Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer working for the Dutch East India company, became the first European to discover New Zealand, and in 1645, Dutch cartographers renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. Captain James Cook later came upon New Zealand during his trips around the east coast of Australia in 1769, and British began trading with Nova Zeelandia, and Anglicized the name to New Zealand.

The French had been exploring the area too and interacting with the Maori. At first the relationship was peaceful, but after a number of skirmishes, the French and Maori went into all-out battle in 1772, with 250 Maori getting killed and many French wounded. After the battle, French explored their villages, and found French sailors’ cooked heads and bones by a fire – the Maori had eaten them. Tension between the French and Maori continued from this battle.

Meanwhile, trade with Sydney and the British had been increasing. Fast forward to 1831, and thirteen Maori chiefs composed a letter to King William IV asking for help to guard their lands from the French. This culminated in the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, which was the declaration of British sovereignty over New Zealand.

As I’m sure you’re not surprised, the Maori and English interpretations of the treaty differed significantly. From the British point of view, the Treaty gave Britain sovereignty over New Zealand, and gave the Government the right to the country. Maori believed they ceded to the Crown a right of governance, in return for protection, without giving up their authority to manage their own affairs. This set off a contentious relationship between English and Maori, with several small battles throughout the years. Despite the relationship the Treaty caused, and the different interpretations of it, the Treaty is still considered the founding document of New Zealand as a nation. Starting in the 1970s, the Treaty and Maori issues – particularly land claims - were given more attention. There have now been settlements valued at hundreds of millions of dollars for treaty breaches.

What I did

Auckland

Auckland is known in New Zealand as the City of Sails, and has two harbors and 48 volcanoes. It is the most populous city, with approximately 1.4 million people. The city has an industrial feel that is balanced with picturesque views of the harbors and surrounding mountains.

I joined a few mates from the hostel I stayed at, and walked up Mount Eden, which is the highest non-active volcano in the region – at approximately 196 meters. The mountain offers fantastic views of the city, and you can look down into the crater, which is now overgrown with grass.

The following day, I went to the Auckland museum, which I highly recommend. The museum is set in an expansive area of fields that includes a beautiful botanical garden, which I walked through.

The museum is in a granite, stately building that overlooks the harbor.

The museum is comprised of three parts. The first floor is about Maori history and artifacts, such as their canoes, weapons, pottery, and textiles. It also provides a thorough history of New Zealand’s discovery by Europe, settlement by British, and the Treaty of Waitangi.

The second floor is natural history. There is a fantastic exhibit on dinosaurs, complete with dinosaur skeletons. I think I got more excited to see a full dinosaur skeleton as an adult, than I did as a child.

The other side of the floor has a great exhibit on volcanoes and earth quakes, and goes into detail about New Zealand’s geology.

The top floor is an exhibit about New Zealand’s war history – from the Maori – British skirmishes in the 1800s, to WWI, WWII, and after. There are recreated bunkers with artillery to give you a sense of what it was like to be in battle. There is also a holocaust memorial room. Overall, the exhibit is informative and well designed.

One interesting story about WWI – the New Zealand troops were initially the only ones to wear shoe polish on their boots. When New Zealand joined the other countries fighting under Britain’s leadership, the soldiers from the other countries all asked for shoe polish from the New Zealanders. The New Zealand shoe polish brand was called Kiwi – after New Zealand’s national bird. So the New Zealanders started getting referred to as Kiwis, and hence the nickname was born.

The shoe polish was actually created by an Australian in 1906, who was married to a New Zealander. He was dedicated to creating the best shoe polish, and when his wife fell ill, she urged him to continue working on the shoe polish formula. When she passed, he named the shoe polish Kiwi, in honor of her. The shoe polish is now sold in over 180 countries.

The Kiwi Experience Bus

I purchased a bus ticket called the Kiwi Experience, which provides a hop-on hop-off bus around all of New Zealand. There are several different routes you can take. The one I am doing is called the Sheepdog and covers most of both islands. A minimum of 17 days is needed. I’ll be doing the whole tour in about 21 days. Here is an overview of the bus route:

Stop 1: Hot Water Beach

At this beach, there is an underground hot spring, which filters up through two fissures. To access the hot water, we dug large holes in the sand with spades. They were easy to dig, and water filled up quickly. In some areas, the water absolutely was scorching – apparently the water can reach 147 degrees; and then in other areas the water was cold. After some trial-and-error, I found the perfect location that mixed hot and cold water, and had a pretty nice beach bath!

Stop 2: Waitomo

The following day, we went to the Waitomo District, an area of New Zealand that used to be under water approximately 30 million years ago. Before we arrived, we stopped off at a hiking trail, in an area where there was a large gold mine in the 1800s. The rail cars and mining shafts are still there, and so it is a pretty neat place to explore.

In Waitomo, I did an incredible cave expedition in Waitomo’s limestone caves, in which there are glowworms.

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Before the tour began, we put on a full-body wet-suit and a helmet, complete with headlamp. The tour began at a totally nondescript location – a cluster of trees on a hill. You would really have no idea there was a cave here. I was with a tour group of 6 others and two tour guides. The entrance to the cave is a 105 foot drop, which we belayed into. Belaying is a system in which one is secured with a harness and rope, the rope is slowly released to lower oneself. It was very easy to get the hang of.

The cave surrounding the drop was shaped like an hourglass, there is one part that gets tight, and then it opens up again. As a result, the chamber below is quite dark, and it is large – the ceiling height must have been at least 70 feet.

After reaching the bottom, I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust. The ceiling of the cave was dotted with twinkling lights, which were the glow worms! They look like stars. The cave felt cool and musty, and water dropping echoed throughout.

After the group all made it to the bottom (I was the first), we moved on through a stalactite and stalagmite tunnel about 7 feet tall. Our guide pointed out fossilized sea shells in the stone, evidence the caves were in fact under the ocean at one point.

Following the tunnel, we came to a zip-line. We turned off our headlamps and rode the zip-line through the dark. This is definitely one of the most exciting things I’ve done – it was a ride through a pitch black abyss, dotted with twinkling lights - the glow worms.

We landed in a large chamber with 50 foot ceilings and a stream below a 10 foot drop. There were a bunch of water tubes waiting for us – so we all took a tube and were instructed to jump off the 10 foot ledge with our tube below us and plunge into the water. Again, somehow, I was elected to go first. I took the plunge and realized that when the guide said the water was “warm” he was joking – the water was freezing. The wet-suits did there job, though.

 As a group, we then all linked our tubes together by putting our feet up on the tube in front of us. We turned off our lights, and our guide pulled us through the water, so we could look up and see the glow worms all around us in the pitch black. We were at a depth of about 200 feet, floating through a steam in a cave that used to be under water, with natural insect lighting. It was an otherworldly experience.

Following the rafting, we had to crawl through a few chambers, during which our guide pointed out an eel. Apparently these eels swim for 100s of miles from the ocean to reach the cave, and live for over a 100 years. They are territorial and stay in the same area of the cave.

To exit the cave, we had to climb up two internal waterfalls. These were legit waterfalls too – about 10-15 feet. The guides showed us where to put our feet and hands, and it was easy yet still a good challenge. We finally exited the cave in an area where the stream enters the cave.

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Now, about these “glowworms” – this is one interesting species. They are actually in the maggot family. The maggots’ feces is actually what glows. So, if the marketing brochures of New Zealand were accurate, instead of “glow worms”, they’d say “glowing maggot shit”, but I guess that doesn’t sound too appealing to tourists! When the maggots are in the “worm” stage, they drop down about 70 3-4 inch silk threads. Insects are attracted to the glow, fly towards the maggots, and then get stuck in the threads. The catch becomes the maggots lunch.

After about 9 months in the worm stage, the maggots enter the pupa stage for 2 weeks, in which they are in a cocoon. They then hatch into a fly. The fly has no digestive system or mouth. So Right after the fly hatches, it has sex, lays about 120 eggs, and, out of starvation, dies in about two days. Only a very small percentage of the eggs hatch in about 3 weeks. When they do, the small worm eats the carcass of its mother, which gives it enough energy to excrete some glow feces and drop threads, and the process starts over.

Stop 3: Rotorua

Rotorua is a small town on the shores of Lake Rotorua. There are geothermal hot springs, mud pools, and geysers bordering the town, and as a result, the whole town smells like sulfur.

I stayed at a nice hostel called Crash Palace – I highly recommend this place. It is intimate with a cozy lounge area. The internet was free and very fast – I made a few skype calls. There is also a hot tub, free pasta and rice, spices, and oil for cooking. They also serve complementary pasta milanese on Friday nights! And, it was about $13/night.

In the evening, I went to the Tamaki Maori Village, which is a recreated traditional Maori village. The program is an evening of Maori cultural experience and dinner. We took a bus to the village, and in total there were 6 buses coming from different locations. Every bus had to elect a tribal “chief” to represent the bus. Guess who was elected?? We were taught the Maori word for hello, which is Kia oro, pronounces like Kay Ora. Since I was the chief, I also learned the Maori greeting – a double tap of both persons’ noses and a strong handshake while saying “Kia ora!”

When we arrived, we entered the village into a large standing area with a small stream one side, and three large wooden entrances ahead of us. All the chiefs had to stand in front of everyone, and we were told that the Maori would come out to greet us. We were told to maintain stiff poker faces and not flinch, and act like "strong chiefs".

About five traditionally dressed Maori men emerged from the three entrances, and one came up on a canoe on the stream. They were dressed with woven cloths and beads, with black tribal makeup on their faces and bodies. They held large spears that they were waving all around. They made loud grunting noises, then bulged their eyes and stuck out their tongue – a signature look of the Maori men. Finally, I guess because we all held firm, they acted like they accepted us, and we all had to do the Maori greeting with the nose taps.

Following the greeting ceremony, we all entered a large village area, where we were showed different Maori traditions, such as balancing games, athletic practices, and weaving techniques.

We then entered a dining area, where we ate a delicious traditional Maori feast. During the feast, the Maori folks sang traditional songs with the accompaniment of a guitar – it was quite lovely!

It was a really fun night, and I’d recommend this cultural experience to anyone that visits Rotorua. The Maori people were extremely nice and friendly, and a bit silly too.

ight by downtown Rotorua is the The Redwoods - Whakarewarewa Forest. The sequoias in this forest are not indigenous to New Zealand, but were planted there at the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, New Zealand was looking for a tree they could use for industrial purposes that took less time to grow to maturity than the indigenous trees, which took 100+ years. 170 different tree species were planted in the region. The area by Rotorua is replete with volcanic activity and there are geothermal springs that run under the ground. As a result, the sequoia thrives in the area, and actually grows 15 times faster than sequoias elsewhere - the unique geology of the area is like steroids for the trees. The majority of the forest is used for commercial purposes, and there are areas that have been felled, and are dotted with small trees. Because they grow so fast, their growth rings are spread far apart, making the wood more porous and malleable, and consequently, they are not suitable for construction. They are often used to make wood composites, and much of the wood is sold to Chinese manufacturers.

The Redwoods are also a great place for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, and there are trails dedicated to each. I rented a bike for the day and did some fantastic biking. It was a strenuous ride, because you have to ride up the mountain first, and many of the bike paths are uphill. Some of the paths are filled with tree roots, making the trails difficult and technical to get through. I did about 5 of the paths, some of which I did a few times. If you like mountain biking, and are up to a strenuous and challenging day, this is a great option, and the bike was relatively inexpensive to rent - $35 NZD for 5 hours.

 

Right next to the Redwoods is Te Puia, an area which includes the Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, a recreation of a Maori village, a kiwi conservation (the bird, not the people), and a school of carving and weaving.

I walked around the area for about two hours. The geothermal valley includes the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere – the Pohutu Geyser, which can shoot up to over 90 feet. The geology in the area is a result of the “ring of fire”, which is a major basin of the Pacific Ocean where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. It has 452 volcanoes (more than 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes). About 90% of the world's earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire.

In addition to 3 active geysers, there are also mud pools, which bubble and toss chunks of mud around. They are pretty entertaining to watch, and the sounds they make are silly and playful. The appearance of the mud inspired the Maori chief Koko to call the pool “the cherished ones of Koko” referring to playful kids. The plopping mud reminded the Europeans of frogs, who called the pond “frog pool”.

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